Culture isn’t one thing. It’s everything

It seems that a new buzzword has entered the mainstream of business language and leadership training...culture. We have all had that job that we absolutely hated. We would look for any excuse to not go in. Personally, I have had a couple of those jobs. But I have also had jobs where it didn’t feel like I was going to work at all. I worked longer, interacted with the other employees more (in and out of work hours) and wait for it...I felt valued. In fact, I felt that I had some equity in the company and in a sense I did. 

This is at the root of culture...how the people feel at work and how it affects them out of work. It is an elusive term though isn’t it? We know what it is, but we just can’t define it in a sentence or two. But it is real and it is encompassing.

Now, when we boil things down, there are two types of culture, accidental culture and designed culture. Most companies have an accidental culture. Furthermore, most people starting businesses don’t think about company culture. They are too busy thinking about the nuts and bolts of the business itself. Getting a space, developing the product, selling the product or service, etc.

Accidental cultures are those that are top down and are driven by the personality of the leader...good, bad or indifferent. If a leader is a negative or an aggressive authoritarian, the culture is going to be controlled and the employees are going to have very little autonomy and the employee churn will be high. The employees that do stick around are those that thrive in negativity. Wonderful thought right?

On the contrary, if the leader is positive and enjoys the input from the employees, the culture is going to be positive and the level of engagement is going to be high. But with both of these cases, they are temporary. If the leadership changes, the culture will change. Additionally, as the business grows, new employees affect the culture and the potential for cultural shift is high. Granted, there is a high likelihood that the positivity will continue because the people that have been attracted there will sustain it.

Perhaps the worst of all accidental cultures are those of the unpresent leader. This is where the employees are left to fend for themselves. Cliques and fractured teams thrive in this environment. This is an all too common culture and extremely detrimental to success. It is unabated mayhem.

In a designed culture, much like a Frank Lloyd Wright, there is deliberate placement of all parts and pieces. In a business environment, forethought about the various aspects of company life and considerations surrounding people, places and things will be brought into the design. It begins with a few simple questions. How will we treat our employees? How will we speak to each other? How do we want our customers treated? What work schedule works best for our customers, our employees? How do we want our employees to feel during and after work? What kind of employees do we want to have? What are our values and what values do we want in our employees? I can go on here...

A designed culture is also grown from the leader or leadership, but it is purposeful and infiltrates the very essence of the company. Decisions like hiring, selling strategies, customer service, branding, and even firing are architected. Don’t get me wrong, even the designed culture can get hijacked and can morph without the leaders understanding what just happened. This is why it is so vital that REAL values are used when designing the culture. It is easy to toss around fluffy words and cliche when”designing” the organizational culture. The challenge is in using the core values that are real and heartfelt. Developing a vision that is equally real, the north star if you will. So that when it comes to hire, the values can be identified, the passion is recognized and the culture is kept intact and often reinforced.

A great example of a designed culture is Zappos, the online shoe empire. Employees don’t make a lot of money at Zappos, but they stand in a long line to be a part of the experience of working there. The great thing is that they go out and start their own businesses and get jobs elsewhere and affect other organizational culture. They do this because their values magnetically aligned.

Zappos’ first mantra is “Deliver WOW through service”. At Zappos, the employees aren’t restricted on the amount of time they spend on the phone with customers. They are applauded for sincerely helping customers get what they want...even if it isn’t from Zappos.
So, what is your organization’s culture? Is it accidental, or did you spend time developing a culture that mirrors your why?